High Court says Minister George Eustice may reject science advice and choose the science he needs, as a ‘political’ decision.

Case CO/2062/2020, Wednesday, 14th October, 2020

The High Court held a Judicial Review permission hearing in Court 16  at the Royal Courts of Justice in London last week; The Queen on the application of Langton v Secretary Of State For Environment Food And Rural Affairs. The matter was before Mr Justice Cavanagh and the requirement was for parties  to attend in person as opposed to via video conferencing.

The application for Judicial Review had been made earlier this year in response to the Defra policy guidance of 5th March 2020, signed off by Minister George Eustice  “Next steps for the strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis free status for England – The government’s response to the strategy review, 2018”. ‘Next Steps’ is the response to the expert review in 2018 by the Group chaired by Sir Charles Godfray. The claim was about Defra not taking up the main finding of the Godfray  Report (GR) in respect of badger-related interventions. The report had very clearly identified a ‘more promising’ strategy of ‘periodic culling’;  that is allowing for a two-year badger cull cessation period (to mirror conditions of the RBCT outcome) after four years of intensive badger culling and then  applying a combination of badger vaccination and intensive culling, should bTB herd breakdowns persist. 

The GR advice was also highlighted by the recent government position in another court case; a fresh decision to move away from  badger culling in the essential actions to reduce bovine TB. This was something that FOI papers show both the Chief Vet and Natural England were anticipating last year, to begin in 2020.

During the hearing, and after both sides had outlined their points, Justice Cavanagh read out a lengthy judgement with just a few embellishments. His view mirrored the governments  defence almost exactly.  He said that the Secretary of State must ‘have regard’ to the GR, but was not obliged to accept its expert advice. He said that it would be wrong to characterise the GR as  giving ‘recommendations’. This is quite extraordinary give the specific content of the text and the plain language of the overview summary at the start.

Referring specifically to paragraphs 6.51- 6.54 in the GR, he agreed with Defra that the  difference between supplementary culling and periodic culling was merely one of ‘cost and convenience’. This is a misreading of paragraph 6.52 where the text implies periodic culling might bring about the same benefit as was seen in the RBCT, whereas Defra and the judge seemed to imply that the comparison was between periodic culling and  supplementary culling, which it is not. Another extraordinary development.

A full hearing should have been granted but was rejected. The judge questioned whether a requirement to rework policy was worthwhile, as ‘relief’ (from a win for us) would not prevent the further use of supplementary culling licences. This rather missed the point that a continuation of the confused and unmeasurable approaches currently in place may do as much harm as good in the bTB fight; destroying the cattle industry.

It was also depressing to see Defra ‘s argument that  cull area data needed to be analysed (modelled in comparison to non-intervention areas) for the value of badger culling to be appreciated. To Defra, raw data is no good, because it only tells you what is happening with disease levels in an area and not why, which is an absolute nonsense. Direct evidence of herd breakdown levels were said to be somehow insufficient, despite obvious face value performance of ‘all measures’ in cull zones, year-on-year being the rational measuring-stick for stakeholders and practitioners; not least farmers and vets.

What is the point of being told that badger culling is working when there is no change or an increase overall of herd breakdown incidence and prevalence in an area? Defra have created a policy where failure doesn’t exist. We maintain that it is dangerous and unlawful.

Acceptance and normalisation of a policy that has no stop button, has always been the problem with supplementary culling,  with no capacity to ‘adapt and learn’ of any direct value of badger culling. This was made clear by the Chief Scientific Advisor in 2019 following the 130% hike in herd breakdowns in Gloucestershire and legal pre-action at that time. It seems we are locked into a system  that is failing, yet pays people to model data to say it is a huge success, when it isn’t or cannot be said to be so. While keeping the ability to check secret from the public. Defra and now the courts say this a lawful approach when protected badgers are being shot in ever-growing numbers.

Finally, within the judgement there was a moment that was deeply disturbing, distracting even from the above considerations. It was that the government is entitled to make the decision not to adopt the findings of an expert review, for political purposes. These are the same words used in the ruling earlier this year by Justice Andrews with respect to a case brought by the NFU against the Secretary of State. In that case, the government’s decision to hold back for a year on culling in Derbyshire in  2019 was because it wanted to find ways to help to ‘tilt’ the bTB eradication policy in favour of badger vaccination. Something that the 2020 bloodbath of tens of thousands of mostly healthy badgers over the last six weeks shows has not happened either.

The ecological impacts part of the case was dismissed with brevity, a matter that will need taking up again soon once BTO and Natural England’s secret reports are exposed.

The government approach to badger culling is not just ineffective, it is  indiscriminate and  unaccountable. It treats wild animals as worthless pests and the protected designated  sites where they live and roam as disposable.  This at a time when wider awareness of  the way in which we treat wild animals and wild places defines our ability to manage our countryside and climate successfully and against wider environmental catastrophe. Aspects of the decision made  in this case will be further appealed.

 

Does Natural England care for Badgers, Hen Harriers and other wildlife?

In recent days, Natural England has released its Habitat Regulations Assessments (HRA) for the disgusting and incompetent 2020 licensed badger culls, currently underway as a part of the wider  failed bovine TB strategy. This follows release recently too, under FOI of the updated (July 2019) NE “Guidance on evaluating the ecological consequences of badger culling on European Sites.” Legal challenges since 2017 have forced NE’s to accept as real the potential impacts resulting from removing badgers from large parts of the English countryside and to try to develop a system that reflects just a few of the issues; those related to SSSIs and internationally designated sites. While HRAs improve in extent and detail, they remain reliant on conditions which are loaded with points of potential failure and which may not be effective in protecting the integrity of European Sites.

This matter has just become even more important as the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention in Strasbourg has formally adopted, at its Bureau meeting of 15 – 16 September, a complaint against the UK for its mass badger killing in England. This includes the extent of unknown ecological change and damage, and placed the compliant on ‘stand-by’ for future scrutiny. This requires, straight away, new communications and reporting by the UK government with a report next summer.

This is a huge international embarrassment for Westminster, as knowledge of the potential UK infraction becomes more widely recognised across Europe and the world. The UK claims there is no evidence of any ecosystem damage, yet, in accepting the possibility, have failed to undertake any credible measurement of this at all. Other than in a 2018 report that is (probably for legal reasons as it exposes them) being kept secret between NE and the British Trust  for Ornithology. They think controlling information upon which public decision making has been done is acceptable behaviour. Would the UK ever consider breaking international law?

There is no evidence at all that shows that conditions to safeguard internationally important sites and their rare species have actually taken place.  Where is the monitoring (annual monitoring reports?) promised to the High Court in 2017 and 2018? NE have a duty to establish the extent that the conditions imposed on these licences are actually adhered to on the ground. Are the conditions easily understandable and accessible to the shooter on the ground? Who has been checking? Might shooting contractors possibly overlook the conditions on these licences?

One  example is the condition to protect Hen Harrier on Salisbury Plain. This states:  Before commencing licensed activities each season, operators must confirm with the owner/occupier the location of any communal roost locations supporting significant numbers of Hen harrier. Except on existing roads and tracks, there shall be no access within 500 metres of any such locations from 1st November to 30th April, inclusive“. Now the cull should normally be over by 1st November but what if an extension is allowed or in time supplementary culling extends into January? The workability of this condition assumes a) that the operator asks this question, b) that the owner/occupier answers it, c) that the owner/occupier is in a position of knowledge about hen harrier roosts on their land, d) that they convey this information to the shooting contractor fully (what if they want their badgers ‘gone’ ?); e) monitoring is good enough to be able to pinpoint roost sites and define a 500m radius from them and lastly f) if all of the aforementioned happens, shooters duly obey the 500m standoff restriction.

Further, this condition only bites in respect of “communal roost locations supporting significant numbers of Hen harrier” (emphasis added). What does this mean? Presumably a communal roost must be more than one hen harrier, but at what point does ‘significant’ bite? That this is a flawed approach is rendered obvious by two considerations: firstly, the wintering population of hen harrier at this site (five year peak mean =15.2 between 2010-2015) is so low that a single bird would represent >1% of the site population and would therefore be significant. Secondly, the SPA is cited as representing 1% of the UK population therefore any reduction from that 1% (which could be displacement of a single bird, or a single roost) would represent a significant effect on integrity.

It would be a huge undertaking to check what Natural England are sanctioning and is actually secretly happening in the countryside. There seems to be little or no intention by them to look at what might be happening beyond the secret studies of one or two sample areas. So nobody will ever know how many Hen Harriers or other sensitive animals have been disturbed by people killing badgers. That’s the way NE has handled it and the way that it wants it to remain.

 

Supreme Court permission application on challenge to the introduction of Supplementary Badger Culling has been refused

The last ten days in the fight to protect badgers from culling in England have been tumultuous.

We have the hugely disappointing news that the Supreme Court will not examine the 2018 rulings by Judge Cranston and those of the Appeal court. In 2019, the Court of Appeal had previously upheld Judge Cranston’s 2018 ruling that the government had satisfied the purpose of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and that “there was a logical and defensible rationale for the licensing of supplementary culling”. Judge Cranston had found that the government’s approach was not unlawful due to “a policy of maintaining a reduced badger population through supplementary culling coupled with the commitment to change tack as evidence became available.”

However, in a final twist, information was received as the result of legal enquiries in 2019, showing that ‘changing tack as evidence becomes available’ is not something that can be done according to government advice, which suggests that  it is not possible to determine directly, the extent to which any individual intervention (of which badger culling is one) has worked or not or made things worse. Equally, Defra’s strange approach to modelling falsely suggests sweeping success in the first two pilot cull areas. They have used this as a basis to justify new culling policy in 2020.  Ridiculous if the implications were not so truly horrible. So the battle moves on to new ground as the excuses and dead badgers pile up. The legal fight opens a new chapter.

Further, a fresh legal claim against aspects of the 5th March 2020 policy guidance on badger culling has recently been lodged by Tom Langton, supported by The Badger Trust, against the Secretary of State for EFRA and with Natural England  (NE) as an Interested Party. This follows the refusal of the request that Defra should follow the key Godfray Review report recommendation and tell NE not to issue new Supplementary Badger Culling (SBC) licences in 2020. Also to stop badger culling after four-year culls for a two-year period to enable more badger vaccination.

Raised concern also follows NE holding secret for two years a publicly funded report by the British Trust for Ornithology charity on aspects of potential ecological damage to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). This report was used by NE in 2018 and 2019; they now say it is obsolete. So what exactly are NE and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) hiding? Ecological issues will also be pursued in the new claim.

The 2020 supplementary licences started on 1st June 2020 in seven cull areas where the four-year intensive culls have ended; in Cornwall (2), Devon (2), Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. The Godfray report suggested a two-year no-cull period and then badger vaccination in half of them. Defra have now responded saying that they have rejected this Godfray recommendation, having consulted the NFU and cull companies. The May 2020 Defra consultation on culling and badger vaccination ending 26 June shows that prospects for badger vaccination are being heavily suppressed with reactive cull style culling being floated for the future. The Edge area of England is now fully at risk of culling for spurious reasons  using evidence that the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust have recently shown is incompetent, something Defra seem to partly recognise..

It will not have escaped the attention of many that the new 5 March “Next Steps” policy not only rows back on the new government’s commitment, described in court recently by Sir James Eadie QC to ‘tilt’ bTB control away from culling and towards badger vaccination but has now come up with a half-baked options on methods for trapping and shooting  badgers right up to the edge of vaccination areas. This is a betrayal of past commitments, an affront to those who work hard in the countryside for badgers, and it constrains and threatens the current and future prospects of the promised expansion of badger vaccination. The new legal challenge attacks not only the decision to reject specific Godfray report recommendations, but also Defra’s further highly selective use of modelled data since 2017,  including data and maps that unfairly, only it controls. Such sickening misrepresentation of science has become a familiar pattern. Counter arguments have been made in Veterinary Record but have yet to receive a positive response or change of direction. There is no excuse for this animal abuse and events in recent months renew our determination to fight on, no matter how difficult during the Covid 19 crisis, for the sake of badgers and our diminishing wildlife.

A number of related cases were stayed on the back of the Supreme Court decision. These will now be reviewed and regular updates will be made. Please support with whatever you can to help  reach the full target in the current Just Giving crowd fund, and to meet funding obligations. Other cases are being developed, so your help is much appreciated and a little from everyone can help make the difference. Thank you again for all your hard work and donations in support. We are The Badger Crowd. Standing up for Badgers. As and when a new appeal  for  a new case is launched, we will let you know and direct you to the crowd fund page.

A more detailed analysis of what we have learned from the Supreme Court’s refusal of permission to revisit Judge Cranston’s High Court ruling is given in a separate blog here.

Please donate towards our legal fund here: Donate 

Badgers and bovine TB in 2020. Time for Change

With the turning of the year, Badger Crowd takes stock and looks to 2020.  On the face of it, the outcome of the general election has grim implications for badgers; the likely outcome is a continuation of the failing English  bTB policy. This brings an eighth year of increasing misery to farmers, the public and badgers. More premature death and suffering for thousands of cows and badgers in 2020 and more £ millions taxpayers money frittered away on poor policy decisions and flawed implementation. The aim of the work supportedby Badger Crowd, as always, is to focus actions in the right direction and to properly address the bTB disease epidemic.

Legal challenge applications against Supplementary Badger Culling in the Supreme Court and stayed cases brought by Tom Langton, sit in the slow judicial queue. These offer a chink of light in an otherwise dark landscape. But the work of the Badger Crowd extends beyond supporting legal challenges. Behind the scenes, there is a broad network of dozens of experienced, informed and dedicated volunteers, looking at and tackling the endless stream of misinformation and anti-badger propaganda.  Science, messaging, data gathering, monitoring, fundraising and legal issues must all be addressed by the extended professional and volunteer  network. The network is a force for badgers and the fight against bovine TB  that never stops. Many established badger groups and trusts lend support in many ways too.

Another government funded study was published this year using modelling to incorrectly make claims of success for badger culling in the ‘Pilot’ areas, pushed by a government propaganda campaign. This is despite advice from the Defra Chief Scientist in June 2019 that it will never be possible to separate any effects of badger culling from other interventions.  And last week, a genomics paper  has been published making controversial claims about bTB transmission between badgers and cattle at Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire. Experts have been looking hard at this, and have already given insightful advice to challenge the claims. Expect more on this early  in the New Year. Dedicated experts work together against a sea of officialdom, prejudice, poor science  and poor journalism.

We would also like to remember at this time of year particularly, all those who are out in the field, attacking the illegal blocking of badger setts and unlawful hunting of wild mammals. Sabotaging crime. We salute you again for your dedication and perseverance.

If you have donated to the legal funds, you have contributed to assist  important legal work, and we hope that there will be rewards next year. The Crowd fund has slowly moved to 80% and this is an immense achievement considering this gruelling, expensive and protracted battle. This seasonal  message is a huge thank you to all making this work possible in every way.